At the movies: *Super 8*

Mystery/thriller/sci-fi, 2011
Paramount Pictures / Amblin Entertainment / Bad Robot

Plot summary, via IMDb:

In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8 movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and the local Deputy tries to uncover the truth – something more terrifying than any of them could have imagined.

I’ve read about lots of filmmakers who started making movies on their parents’ equipment when they were just kids. If J.J. Abrams – and Steven Spielberg – weren’t a couple of those kids themselves, they must have hung around with some who were, because the group of middle-school kids shooting their own zombie movie for an amateur-film contest feels strongly authentic.

“Authenticity” may seem like a strange adjective to apply to a movie that draws so heavily from genre influences, but it’s what resonated for me about Super 8. For one thing, Abrams has both knowledge of and clear affection for the genres he’s working with, and that keeps the film out of self-referential, campy territory. (Note that I appreciate self-referential campiness in its place, but I also appreciate that this movie was not its place.)

The film’s cast, which includes some familiar faces in the “Hey! It’s That Guy!” sense but no real household names, enhances the authenticity. The core of that cast is the group of young actors playing the middle-school-aged filmmakers who are in the wrong place at the wrong time when a train derails just outside their town, and in my opinion, they may be the best group of young actors to carry a film since Stand By Me. They’re not cutesy or smart-alecky or precocious – they’re kids.

And they are, quite convincingly, kids in 1979. That was an element that resonated quite strongly with both my husband and me. We were just a little older than the kids in Super 8 in 1979 ourselves, and the period and setting felt just right to us. I knew those houses, even the one from the seedier end of town; I knew the freedom of riding around on my bike (without a helmet!). The details weren’t emphasized to the point of hyper-awareness of the era, and there wasn’t an overabundance of pop-culture references aside from some of the soundtrack choices – it’s not That 70’s Movie – but they felt like they belonged. (There’s an excellent commentary on NPR’s Monkey See blog that discusses the knowing use of references in this movie better than I have here.)

The genre elements that propel Super 8 are employed well. There’s real suspense generating real shocks, and while I was sometimes able to anticipate where the story was going, I never felt let down by that. The mystery at the core of the story is quite obviously not drawn from real life, but what happens to the characters around that mystery sells it, and that’s what gave the movie that sense of authenticity for me.

Super 8 is a real-feeling movie about a mostly-unreal situation. I didn’t really know what to expect from it, and I really enjoyed what it delivered. I’d see it again. And if you decide to see it yourself, be sure not to leave before the credits; stay to see the Super-8 zombie movie those kids made for the film contest.

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